Politics

Beyond Bridgegate: How to pull the partisan politics out of the Port Authority

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For decades after its creation in 1921, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was a unique sanctuary where big capital and smart engineering cross-pollinated in the public interest, much like at today’s Silicon Valley tech giants. In that alchemy, world-class projects were produced that radically improved the daily lives of ordinary people.

Its successful and nearly simultaneous completion of no fewer than four bridges in the late 1920s and early 1930s (the Goethals Bridge, the Outerbridge Crossing, the Bayonne Bridge and the George Washington Bridge) all ahead of schedule and well under budget, established the agency’s reputation for avoiding the pitfalls of petty partisan politics. The Port Authority was a shining example to a nation in need of a can-do spirit, an agency whose utility was demonstrated with every trip over one of its bridges or through one of its tunnels.

“The bridge is evidence of what can be accomplished when true efficiency is applied to civic projects,” wrote then-Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt in a special New York Times supplement celebrating the opening of the GWB in 1931. “It presents a gratifying contrast to the story of delays, procrastination and endless disappointment which have been often the fate of great public enterprises in the past.’”

That quote, which author and historian Jameson W. Doig included in his seminal history of the bi-state agency, “Empire on the Hudson,” illustrates how the Port Authority caught the imagination of Roosevelt, who as president would use it as a template for creating independent entities like the Tennessee Valley Authority. Since then, thousands of similar entities have been established across the country and around the world.

As the noted historian Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in the foreword to Doig’s book, the volume recounts “a time when Americans had confidence that government could confront great problems with imagination and decisiveness and that bureaucracies could be at once honest, effective, and competent.

Fast forward almost a hundred years later to the recently completed criminal proceedings in the “Bridgegate” federal corruption trial in Newark. For several weeks a jury heard hours of testimony describing how the highest levels of this now-multibillion-dollar agency were corrupted and used as a tool for the narrow political self-interests of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie was never charged with a crime, but two of his high-level appointees to the Port Authority – David Wildstein and Bill Baroni – his former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and one of his top political confidantes, David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority, were all successfully prosecuted for using the bi-state agency to either enrich themselves or illegally punish political opponents of the New Jersey governor.

“The Port Authority was like the Land of Oz, and the Bridgegate trial pulled the black curtains back and we saw the little guy pulling the levers and working the machine.”

– Doug Muzzio, Baruch College political science professor

The guilty verdicts, and in Wildstein’s case a guilty plea, brought a measure of accountability, but prosecutors conceded well before trial that the Bridgegate ground crew had ample assistance from unnamed and unindicted co-conspirators, most likely people still on the public payroll who had knowledge of the criminal conspiracy but failed to act. Efforts by the news media to force the release of those names were rejected by the courts.

To accomplish their scheme, the Bridgegate conspirators also had to enlist members of the Port Authority police brass, who in some instances told subordinates not to say anything, even as the traffic problem worsened. In the cover-up phase of the criminal conspiracy, the head of the Port Authority Police union claimed he had originated the so-called traffic study, which prosecutors proved in court was part of an elaborate cover-up of the lane closures. The police union had endorsed Christie’s re-election.

But during the trial it was made clear that the Port Authority itself, through false press releases and obfuscation of inquiries by the news media, also facilitated the cover-up. Under defense counsel cross-examination the agency’s executive director, Pat Foye, admitted he signed off on a false press release stating that “the Port Authority has conducted a week of study” and the bi-state agency would “review those results and determine the best traffic patterns at the GWB.”

While Foye is credited with ending the four-day traffic coronary in September 2013, his signing off on the “fake news” of a traffic study has to be seen through the prism of Christie’s heated re-election campaign.

So what changed in the almost century-long arc of the Port Authority that it went from transcending partisan politics to being a tool of it, to the point that it was involved in criminality that preyed on the very public it was supposed to serve? Despite the millions spent to pursue the case the criminal prosecution myopically zeroed in on a handful of culpable defendants, with the jury not charged to address the guilt or innocence of the agency itself and its police force.

It’s not like the Port Authority lacked the ability to internally probe for wrongdoing. In the spring of 2013, the agency’s inspector general made headlines for an internal probe that forced out treasurer Anne Marie Mulligan, a 35-year veteran who oversaw bond issuance and insurance, and two of her subordinates after it was discovered that the trio had been improperly taking meals and theater tickets on local and international trips.

The partisan politics used by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run the Port Authority have helped to cripple the agency. (Philip Kamrass-Office of the Governor)

Even before the crisis of leadership boiled over into Bridgegate, the agency’s early ability to complete projects ahead of schedule and below cost estimates had become a distant memory. After 9/11, which took a toll on the Port Authority staff, the agency found itself sinking deeper and deeper into debt as it failed to control billions of dollars in cost overruns to complete the World Trade Center complex, an enterprise it had tried to extricate itself from by leasing the complex to developer Larry Silverstein before the catastrophic attack.

In a 2012 letter to Christie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a special panel of the Port Authority's commissioners reported that in just 10 years the agency's debt had spiked from $9 billion to almost $21 billion, warning that “this significant increase in the agency's debt load will remain a burden for years to come.”

And the commissioners’ review from Navigant Consulting found that the burying of the Port Authority in long-term debt coincided with the agency boosting gross compensation for its own workforce by 19 percent in just five years. As a result, today the average Port Authority employee makes more than $143,000 in salary and benefits annually. In the short term the Port Authority made cuts and tried to bail itself out with toll hikes and fare increases on its trans-Hudson PATH subway line.

But the public messaging on the rationale for the toll and fare hike had been all over the place, further undermining public trust in the beleaguered agency. In August 2011 the Port Authority put out a press release with the headline, “Faced With Constrained Capacity Due to Historic Economic Recession, Coupled With Billions in WTC and Post 9-11 Security Costs and Unprecedented Need For Infrastructure Overhaul, Port Authority Proposes Toll and Fare Increase.”

AAA sued the Port Authority to stop what it said was the inappropriate use of toll revenue to backstop the mounting debt at the World Trade Center site. At the time Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a former New Jersey attorney general who would later be convicted for shaking down United Airlines, told reporters no such link between the deepening WTC debt and the toll hike existed.

“There was never a statement made that linked the toll increase to paying for the World Trade Center redevelopment,” said Samson. “What was said … was trying to define and describe the current status at the Port Authority at that time and what was causing the financial issues facing the Port Authority, not that drove the toll increase, but rather a general picture of the financial position of the Port Authority.”

It is instructive to review the bi-state agency’s recent history in light of the subsequent criminal convictions of some of its top leadership and the disclosures at trial about how the agency operated behind the scenes.

Historian Jameson Doig said that in 2014 Christie made the right call in naming former New Jersey Attorney General John Degnan as chairman of the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners. Since taking office, Degnan has spearheaded an effort to depoliticize the bi-state agency and restore its earlier reputation for efficiency and professionalism. He told Crain’s earlier this year about the agency’s plan to create and fill the new post of chief executive officer with a salary range of between $400,000 and $450,000, well above the $290,000 received by Foye, the executive director.

But even an effort at a reset has to contend with the shadows of the recent past. “A lot of people who have successful careers are wary of coming into an agency like the Port because they have questions about the potential interference of politics,” Degnan told Crain’s.

New Jersey State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a longtime critic of the Port Authority and one of the driving forces behind the Bridgegate legislative probe, sees Degnan as a critical change agent. “John Degnan has done more for reform at the Port Authority both on the issue of ethics and the issue of transparency,” Weinberg told City & State. “He has authorized a committee of commissioners to review the (Bridgegate) trial testimony and what it has pointed up in terms of the Port Authority’s involvement as well as the Port Authority police. We will await that result.”

Doug Muzzio, a professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, believes that post-Bridgegate there is a unique opportunity to reset the entire agency. “The Port Authority was like the Land of Oz, and the Bridgegate trial pulled the black curtains back and we saw the little guy pulling the levers and working the machine.”

Muzzio said that while the trial itself only held a handful of people accountable, the proceedings revealed it took others actors who were not indicted. “The corruption is much wider, and you have to start there and clean out the entire stable,” said Muzzio. “It has grown into a Byzantine octopus and its worldview is significantly corrupted in a systemic sense by its focus on real estate that creates the operating assumption that is what it should be all about.”

Muzzio said the social ecology of the Board of Commissioners is a handicap going forward. “And all you have to do is look at the composition of the Board of Commissioners to see that is a core of the problem. What you have is all white guys in real estate, the law or money management. This has created a very insular worldview. Where’s the representation of the New York or New Jersey commuter? You just need more voices.”

Doig agrees the lack of diversity is an issue that needs addressing. “The Port Authority has rarely had women nor minority group members,” said Doig, “The one woman and minority group member that was on the board when I met with the entire commission to complain about their patronage appointees was entirely silent in that meeting, suggesting it also has a small minority of commissioners out of 12 doesn’t get you the kind of articulate and persuasiveness use of diversity you would like to have. There is a problem there.”

Peter Woolley, founder of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind polling institute, said the rising cost of commuting via the Port Authority’s facilities has become like a regressive tax that hits those least able to afford it.

“As long as it is led by commissioners whose orientation is that of real estate developers you are not likely to have, say, the perspective of an environmentalist in the decision-making much less the experience of the non-union hourly worker that cleans out the airplanes or the kid who has to take multiple busses to get to their minimum wage retail job at Livingston Mall and spends the first week of every month’s pay on his bus pass,” Woolley said.

“There is no question that the Port Authority was created in order to insulate political pressure of the kind of short-term goals that the governors and local officials want to use the agency for.”

– Jameson Doig, historian

The Port Authority said it is starting to address these concerns. In a statement to City & State, the agency said that “in recent years it has refocused on its core transportation mission and sought a series of reforms to enhance the transparency, operations and efficiency of the bi-state agency, with the primary goal of improving the movement of people and goods throughout the region while also helping to increase the metropolitan area’s economic growth.”

Doig said ultimately the responsibility for the current status of the Port Authority has to rest with the two men that have veto power over its actions: Christie and Cuomo. “What it says is that the quality of leadership by the governors, particularly by Christie, is very weak,” said Doig, who claimed the New Jersey governor had used the agency as a hiring hall for his partisans and operatives. “Christie had more than 60 he put it in his first two years in power.”

Both governors, Doig contends, “see the Port Authority as their own piggy bank. It has lots of money. They control it in the sense that they have the veto power of its projects. They can force either a small or large number of patronage appointees” on the Port Authority, “which remains definitely vulnerable to that kind of misbehavior and unethical actions” that can on occasion cross over into Bridgegate-type “criminal actions.”

Emails to both governors’ press offices seeking comment received no response.

“There is no question that the Port Authority was created in order to insulate political pressure of the kind of short-term goals that the governors and local officials want to use the agency for,” Doig said. He noted that “for many years, many decades after” the agency’s creation in 1921, the appointment of a Port commissioner was seen as the extension of a solemn “public trust.”

“They appointed people that largely, almost entirely in fact, thought about the region not just narrow state interests and well beyond what an individual governor might think was helpful for their re-election,” said Doig. “So, in that sense the agency was set up with a degree of independence.”

The governors were granted veto power over Port Authority actions in 1927, and were regularly consulted and advised about the agency’s agenda. “Much of it was focused on making sure that the commissioners had looked carefully at the alternatives and thought about the political costs as well as the economic and social costs and benefits and therefore went forward in a way that was responsible, not necessarily in a way that the governor was able to take credit or was re-elected.”

While some governors had taken a more invasive role behind the scenes before Bridgegate, Doig said a major misstep that had long-term consequences for the agency was New York Gov. George Pataki’s appointment of George Marlin, an investment banker and Conservative Party leader.

“He got rid of the Port Authority Library, for example, that had lots of important stuff in there that was used by the planners, and he demolished the planning staff,” said Doig. “No other executive director undermined the agency in the way he did. It took Chris Christie to match Marlin and maybe exceed him” in terms of negative impacts on the Port Authority.

But for Nick Casale, an ex-NYPD detective and former deputy director of security and counterterrorism for the MTA, it’s the very structure of the Port Authority that’s the problem. He favors disbanding it. “The creation of these sprawling independent authorities becomes a red flag for corruption and fiefdoms unto themselves unaccountable really to no one,” Casale said. “Look at what happened in Bridgegate. You had a police force, the Port Authority Police Department that could be used like a lap dog by bureaucrats within the agency looking to do the bidding of a vindictive governor.”

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